Friday, July 4, 2008

Income Inequality and Social Mobility

The rich are different from you and me. - F. Scott Fitzgerald

Yes, they have more money. - Ernest Hemingway

Chua Mui Hoong had a column in the Straits Times today talking about the impact of income inequality on social mobiliy.

Now, I normally don't read her column (in fact I don't read most Straits Times columnists) as I consider her an unapologetic government shill (as are most other columnists), frequently playing the good cop foil to her sister's bad cop. Just about the only Straits Times columnist I consider worth reading is Zuraidah Ibrahim, but she writes very infrequently.

So why did I read her column? Because she talked about something that happens to be a pet topic of mine: income inequality and social mobility. It's a pet topic of mine because on principle, it's something that I feel society needs to address, and also, I personally happen to have felt its sting while growing up.

Chua Mui Hoong hit on many of the advantages that wealthier families confer onto their offspring: better schools, tuition , networks, parental involvement etc.

To this list I would add: preschool education (which Lee Wei Ling has talked about), affordability of professional childcare and domestic help, internship and work attachment opportunities, overseas immersion programs, extracurricular lessons (speech, writing, tennis, golf), professional networks (especially the local law and medicine fraternities), and cultural factors that include an English-speaking environment and cultivation of upper-class habits in comportment.

F. Scott Fitzgerald was certainly right. The rich live in different houses, drive different cars, go to different schools, work different jobs (or in different ways) and eat different food. They are also less subject to the vagaries of fate, with their wealth acting as a safety net.

Income inequality (and more broadly, inequality of opportunity) is an anti-driver of social mobility. Why should we care? Leaving outside the desire for a more egalitarian society, we should care because this has serious implications on the meritocracy that Singapore prides itself so much on. Singapore risks stratification into an elitist society if we do not recognize that some of the successful people that we have cultivated owe their success not only to their own effort, but that their success may in fact be a reflection of their privileged circumstances.

Here's a quote from McNamee and Miller Jr, authors of The Meritocracy Myth:

It is generally acknowledged that a pure meritocracy is probably impossible to achieve. What is less generally acknowledged is that such a system may not be entirely desirable. The limits and dangers of a system operating purely on the basis of merit were dramatically portrayed in The Rise of the Meritocracy (1961), a novel by British sociologist Michael Young. Young envisioned a society in which those at the top of the system ruled autocratically with a sense of righteous entitlement while those at the bottom of the system were incapable of protecting themselves against the abuses leveled against them from the merit elite above. Instead of a fair and enlightened society, the meritocracy became cruel and ruthless.

More practically, Singapore risks ossification if it places meritocracy on too high of a pedestal. If all the successful people who run a country's institutions, companies and organs of state have the same backgrounds, attended the same schools and universities and have the same perspectives and opinions, how will we guard against the dangers of groupthink? With such a circumscribed 'gene pool' of talent, how can we adapt and compete in an increasingly competitive world? Even the scholarship system, meant to inject talent wherever it may be found, seems to be broken in this regard, since it injects only more of the same kinds of talent.

In a later post, I will recommend a book bundle for further reading on this.

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